Illustration of a scientist wearing a cross necklace and peering into a mocriscope


The Greening of Jesus

Illustration by Andrew Zbihlyj

By Mark I. Pinsky ​

Riding the train down to London last summer, after a two-week fellowship session on science and religion at the University of Cambridge, I noticed an article in the Independent newspaper about a new book which reinforced that notion of an increasingly irreligious Europe. It is true that outward signs of faith—apart from biblical passages emblazoned on London’s famed red double-decker buses by—are difficult to come by.

But I found deeply felt Christianity alive and well in an unlikely setting: the academy’s scientific community. To many, this may seem counterintuitive. The evangelical theologian Alister McGrath told us he once believed that “science was the ally of atheism.” Yet among our other lecturers at the Templeton-Cambridge program were major figures in science, from cosmologists to biologists to particle physicists, who pronounced themselves believers. Of course, given the interests of the late Sir John Templeton, who endowed the fellowships, in the relationship between science and religion, this should not have been surprising.

Still, these towering figures—Simon Conway Morris, John Polkinghorne, Sir Brian Heap, Sir John Houghton—characterized themselves as evangelicals as well. Polkinghorne, author of Science and Theology, preaches at a Cambridge church on weekends. To be sure, these are evangelicals of a particular sort. By and large, they reject creationism and intelligent design, embracing the concept of “theistic evolution,” a God-created, billions-years-old universe. None numbered themselves among any of the apocalyptic American evangelical tribes of arrogant dominionists or fanciful premillennial dispensationalists of the “Left Behind” stripe.

Much of the modern dialogue between science and religion deals with the origin of the universe and the development of life on earth—surrogate discussions over the existence of God and the divine role in life. In my relatively brief time at Cambridge, a day did not pass without some mention of Charles Darwin—an alumnus—and Richard Dawkins, the best-selling Oxford atheist. Yet to me, these exchanges have become tiresome, repetitive, and unenlightening.

There have been similar debates among scientists of faith over the morality of stem cell research and end-of-life issues. But a more recent (and intriguing, to me) subset of the science and religion dialogue has emerged among evangelical scientists over climate change. Books arguing the religious case for curbing global warming seem to appear every week with titles like A New Climate for Theology: God, the World, and Global Warming and Jesus Brand Spirituality: He Wants His Religion Back, which asks, “Was Jesus Green?” In A Moral Climate: The Ethics of Global Warming, Michael Northcott asserts that “Christ is present among those suffering already from climate change.”

This discussion among Christian researchers raises a host of larger issues, as does another new book, Descartes’ Bones: A Skeletal History of the Conflict Between Faith and Reason by Russell Shorto. That is, how does—or should—religious faith motivate, influence, or inform scientific research and its application? Is there a religious foundation for science? Should science glorify God? Can it even be a ministry? Should scientists use their research and that of their colleagues to become activists in causes like global warming? Is it possible for evangelical researchers to reconcile their religious faith and the scientific method?

Increasingly, well-educated, middle-class suburban evangelicals from the Sun Belt are embracing what many Christians call, in a brilliant semantic stroke, “creation care”—a more politically palatable label than “environmentalism.” This activist approach to climate change emphasizes biblical stewardship of the earth. There is, to be sure, resistance to this view from evangelical theologians and scientists who argue that global warming does not exist, or that it is part of a natural cycle and in no way the result of human activity and abuse of the earth. Some even argue that the world will soon end with Jesus’ return, so don’t worry. Thus, Christians are under no obligation to support measures, like the Kyoto Protocols, to drastically limit greenhouse gas emissions. Their scientific advocates are researchers like Calvin Beisner, who has appeared before the Vatican’s Pontifical Council on Climate Change and Development. They have organized their own groups, like the Interfaith Council for Environmental Stewardship. Theologically, these opponents agree with the late ultraconservative theologian R. J. Rushdoony, that science must first serve religion: “If Jesus Christ is Lord of the family, he is also Lord of the laboratory.”

Yet increasingly, the fundamentalist view of climate change is losing force and is being challenged by other scientists who are equally devout in their evangelical beliefs. At Cambridge the renowned reproductive biologist and ethicist Sir Brian Heap, a self-described “open-minded evangelical,” is a leading advocate of addressing climate change. He said he had no difficulty reconciling his personal faith and scientific discovery and advocacy. “When doing my own bench research, it was clear that personal faith influenced decisions about the wisdom of carrying out certain experimentation.” He continued, “The religious foundation comes from the Christian motivation to seek the best for others…for the world we too easily damage.”

Researchers like Heap have glittering academic credentials, and to bolster their influence, they have joined in groups like Christians in Science in Great Britain. There are prominent American counterparts, like Francis Collins, until recently head of the U.S. Genome Project. The Au Sable Institute of Environmental Studies in the U.S. was founded by a group of evangelicals, including Calvin DeWitt, professor of environmental studies at the University of Wisconsin. Similar groups of evangelical scientists, like the American Scientific Affiliation, began in the late 1960s.

“I’m excited and passionate about understanding the world, its biosphere and ecosystems, and our human place and vocation in creation, to the honor and praise of its Creator,” said DeWitt. “It’s because of my religious foundation that I’ve chosen to be a scientist,” he continued. “And for all of us in science it is either this, or the inspiration we get from creation, or both that has brought us into this wonderful vocation.” DeWitt acknowledges that his lectures sometimes sound like sermons: “Scientific inquiry in some settings can even be a form of worship, I believe—a kind of singing a living psalm to the Lord of creation….My faith inspires my scientific research in helping me to move with passion to discover how the world works, and to do so with integrity.”

What happens in the minds of evangelical researchers who may find their religious faith and the scientific method in conflict? Some, like John Polkinghorne, a particle physicist, dismiss the question, saying, where research is concerned, there is no connection between his science and his faith. “I can’t tell the difference in research in physics done by a religious believer and that done by an atheist.” But he added, “If you see the world as a divine creation, that’s a further motive to explore its order.”

“Science and theology offer complementary perspectives,” said Fraser Watts, professor of theology at Cambridge, a weekend preacher, and editor of Science Meets Faith. “Science tells us how, religion tells us why.” Robert White, professor of geophysics at Cambridge, and co-author of Christianity, Climate Change and Sustainable Living, as well as a contributor to Real Scientists, Real Faith, agreed. “Our work, the attitudes we bring to it and the way we do it should be as much part of our worship of God as is the hour or two we spend in church on a Sunday,” he said. “Science is a secular activity insofar as its very strength is in not appealing to any external causes—such as divine activity.”

Sir John Houghton, in his former capacity as chief executive of England’s Meteorological Office, said that in his groundbreaking research he was acting “absolutely as a scientist looking for the truth.” He said he didn’t approach his scientific research on the issue “from an ethical or moral side,” and his religion had no influence on his findings. Once he reached his conclusion, however, he acknowledges pursuing the cause as a “missionary.” “I believe the problem we’re facing is not just a technical and scientific one,” Houghton said, “but a moral and spiritual one.”

“The impact of global warming is such that I have no doubt in describing it as a weapon of mass destruction,” Houghton told a meeting of British Baptists. The scientist is credited with influencing the climate change debate beyond his own country to the United States, where some evangelical groups, like the Southern Baptist Convention, are deeply divided on global climate change.

Houghton has personally influenced American religious leaders like the Rev. Richard Cizik, former head of the 30-million-member National Association of Evangelicals. Cizik’s 2002 Oxford “conversion” on the issue—which has been compared to the Apostle Paul’s on the road to Damascus—led to charges by fundamentalists that he was advocating “his own political opinions as scientific fact.” This led to a concerted effort by conservative leaders like James Dobson, Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, and Richard Lamb to get him fired.

Nonetheless, support for an activist role in dealing with climate change has become a major tenet among a cohort of younger, mega-church pastors now bidding to assume national leadership of the evangelical movement. (However, the debate over climate change among American believers is not solely sectarian—or scientific. It is also generational, and is even being used as a classic wedge issue.)

In Central Florida, the Rev. Joel Hunter, of Northland, a Church Distributed, has become a major proponent of creation care, and a member of this cohort. Hunter has met with Houghton three times, for several hours at a time, in various conferences around the world. His congregation has gone “green” with a vengeance, recycling just about everything they use and educating themselves on the larger issue of climate change. The church has also hosted national conferences featuring DeWitt in person and Houghton through video.

Support on the global climate change issue from believing researchers like Houghton is very important, said Hunter. “American evangelicals respect good, peer-reviewed science done by respected and recognized scientists,” even more so when they are also committed Christians. This is especially true given the influential role evangelicals exercise on America’s political dynamic.

Many believe that ideally science and religion should be inseparable. As Houghton put it, “We are integrated people. Theology was once called the ‘Queen of the sciences.’ “

Mark I. Pinsky, former religion writer for The Orlando Sentinel, is author of A Jew Among the Evangelicals: A Guide for the Perplexed (Westminster John Knox Press, 2006).

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